Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Cost of Adoption

Adoption is not an easy or cheap process.  When my wife and I adopted our two daughters, we had to jump through all sorts of hoops and pay all sorts of costs just to be able to adopt.  We had to have a social worker come out to our home and do a home study.  She toured the house and made recommendations for us that we had to follow so that our home would be deemed acceptable.  We had to undergo psychological, emotional, and family evaluations from that same social worker to check for red flags.  We had to undergo criminal background checks complete with finger printing and the like.  We had to join a support group and drive to College Station monthly to talk about the ins and outs of adoption.  Then there was the adoption fees that had to be paid.  Afterwards, there were the home visits after we had adopted the kids ensuring that they were healthy and taken care of.  Finally, we had to hire a lawyer and appear before the judge.  Fortunately, everything lined up.  All the i’s were dotted.  All the t’s were crossed.  We were deemed fit guardians, and so we became the legal parents of our girls.

It was a long, drawn out and costly process, but it is one that I would gladly go through again in a heart beat because I love my girls.  They were worth every hour of work that we put into the process; every mile driven to go to support group; every dollar spent on fees and attorneys.  I have no regrets at all–even as they are entering into their teenage years.  Oh, I may have joked that I’d turn them in for a refund if they got too out of line, but that’s not going to happen.  They are my children.  Period.  And they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Dawna and I love them dearly.  We do not treat them any differently than we treat Kevin, who is genetically our child.  We would lay down our lives for our girls just as we would lay down our lives for our son.  Our girls will receive the same inheritance that Kevin does.  When we talk about our children, we don’t say, “These are our adopted children and this is our child.”  No.  We say, “These are our children.”  Because they are!

Talking about the adoption process is near and dear to my heart, and when I read St. Paul’s words from the fourth chapter of the book of Galatians, something is tweaked very deep inside of me.  And I am sure that it is because I know exactly what it is like to adopt children.  And the parallels jump out at me all throughout this short text as we now consider what it was for God to adopt us as His children.

Paul begins with these words, “4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”  When I hear these words, I think about the hoops that Jesus had to jump through to pay for our adoption.  You see, our adoption was not cheap!  Anyone who says grace is free needs to make a qualifying statement. Grace is free for us, but it cost God deeply.  The Son of God left his throne from on high.  He took on the limitations of human flesh to live and dwell among us.  He became the God who hungered; who was tempted; who thirsted; who slept on the ground; who worked with his hands; who endured the same things that we endure.  This was very unbecoming for any God of the ancient world!  Ah, but He didn’t just become like us–he succeeded where we failed.  For he was born under the law; he was born under God’s rules and commands.  And whereas we fail to follow them; we fail to complete them; we break them on a daily basis; Jesus fulfilled them.  Jesus worshiped only His Father; Jesus remembered the Sabbath; Jesus honored his father and mother; Jesus did not kill; He did not steal; he did not covet.  Jesus did what we could not do.  He became spotless and blameless before God.  He became righteous and holy.  He could actually stand before the Father and say, “I’ve done what you asked.  I’ve fulfilled your word.”

And here is where it really, really became costly for God to adopt us.  For in order for us to become children of God, we needed to be as blameless as Jesus.  We needed to have followed God’s commands as well as Jesus did.  We needed to have loved God above all things; kept the Sabbath; honored our fathers and mothers; not murdered; not stole; not coveted.  But we had failed.  Sin had stained us.  We were ensnared and held hostage by its power.  But Jesus redeemed us.  The word here in Greek for redeemed means to pay the purchase for a slave’s freedom.  Jesus paid for our release.  He paid for our freedom, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that [we] may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”  Jesus gave up his holiness; his righteousness and became stained with our sin.  The spotless lamb of God became dirty and filthy with all we had failed to do, and then he gave his righteousness to us.  He gave his cleanness to us so that we could become children of God.  Oh, this did not cost us a single thing, but it cost Jesus everything.  See what love Jesus has for you!  See what compassion Jesus has for you!  See the lengths that Jesus has gone to redeem you!  It cost him his very life!  But he paid it; willingly, with no coercion.  He loved you and wanted you to be his brother.  To be his sister.  He considered you family.

And now that is exactly what you are.  You are sons; you are daughters of the Most High King.  You are children of God.  As Paul continues, “6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  Now hear what God does for you to help you know that you are indeed His child.  He sends to you the Holy Spirit.  This is the Spirit of truth who comes deep into your hearts to mold you and make you into the image and likeness of Jesus.  He comes into you to help you know deep down within the depths of your soul that you are loved and cherished by God.  He comes deep within you to help you look heavenward and cry out, “Daddy!” just as Jesus looked heavenward and uttered the exact same word.  When you are in doubt; when you wonder if indeed you are loved; when you wonder if God really and truly loves and cares for you; shut out the distractions.  Still your mind.  Quiet the inner thoughts and turmoil.  And let the Spirit warm your heart.  Let the Spirit penetrate your mind.  Let the Spirit move on you and through you, and you will sense deep within that you have been adopted.  You have been called.  You have been claimed.  You have been bought with a great price.  You have a Daddy in heaven who loves you beyond measure.

And you will receive the heavenly inheritance.  You will receive the same thing that your brother Jesus received.  You will receive all the love and joy and peace that the Father can give.  You will receive the assurance that no matter what happens in this life–whether it be good or bad; suffering or illness; or even death; God’s promises will come true for you.  You will have joy.  You will have peace.  You will have patience. You will have eternal life.  This is what it means to be an heir of God.  This is what it means to have been adopted as His child.  This is what Jesus came to earth to accomplish.  This is why he arrived in the manger; so that you may be his brother; his sister.  God has adopted you and paid a great price for you.  What a tremendous gift.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Merry Christmas, Dilly Dilly!!

I’m going to start off this sermon with a little bit of a disclaimer: I don’t watch much television anymore.  Hardly any at all, in fact.  That’s an important bit of information to understand as I lead into my next point.

A few months ago, I started seeing some folks on my Facebook feed posting all sorts of things followed by the words, “Dilly dilly.”  “The Houston Astros won the World Series!  Dilly dilly!”  “Jose Altuve won the MVP! Dilly dilly!”  I’m like, “What is this dilly dilly stuff?”  And I was too embarrassed to say anything either.

Then one day, as I was browsing an internet blog that I frequent called Intellectual Takeout, I saw an article titled, “Bud Light's 'Dilly Dilly' Commercial is Ingenious.”  Well, that explained why I didn’t know what was going on.  No television.  But there was a link to the commercial on YouTube, so I watched it.  Now, I am curious.  How many of you have seen the “Dilly Dilly” Bud Light commercial?

Several.  Cool.  For those of you who were like me and clueless, let me give you a brief description. 

        The scene opens in a castle where a banquet is taking place.  A guy walks up to the king and puts a six pack of Bud Light on the table in front of the king.  The King says, “Sir Jeremy, you are a true friend of the crown. Dilly dilly.” 

Everyone else in the room raises a bottle of Bud Light and says, “Dilly dilly.”

Then a lady walks up to the king and places a 20 pack of Bud Light on the table.  The king says, “Madam Susan, you are an even truer friend of the crown.  Dilly dilly.”  The rest of the crowd raises their bottles and says, “Dilly dilly.”

The next person in line walks up and with gusto places this capped wine bottle in front of the king.  The music stops.  The king quizzically says, “What is this?”

The guy responds, “This is a spiced honey mead wine that I have really been into lately.”  There is a slight pause until the guy shakes his head with a little smile and says, “So...dilly dilly?”

The king instead looks at the guy and says, “Please follow Sir Brad. He is going to give you a tour of the Pit of Misery.”

The guy looks at the king and says, “I’m sorry, what?” But before anything else can be said, one of the party guests yells out, “Pit of misery.  Dilly dilly.”  And everyone else says, “Dilly dilly!”

Then there is the ending credits where Bud Light is advertised.

Now, some of you might just be wondering what a beer commercial might have to do with Christmas and the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on earth.  The two things seem to be miles upon miles apart and have nothing to do with one another.

But let me read to you an excerpt from the article that Intellectual Takeout posted:

When I first saw this, I laughed so hard to the point of nearly crying. This one ad brilliantly calls out the snobbery of craft brew culture and all the pomp that goes with it. Nowhere does it make a direct pitch for Bud Light. It just says exactly what we think but never say: Bud Light is a people’s beer, and that’s just fine because now the people rule.
So embedded in this commercial is a bit of the story [that]...  No longer would the elite of the past determine the tastes of the kingdom and the way resources would be used. There would be mass production for the masses of people. It was a revolution in history, and one that would never stop.
And from a marketing point of view, this commercial deals directly with Bud Light’s real competition in the craft brew industry, which is making inroads by the day. Bud Light obviously cannot claim to have a better product. And guess what? Everyone knows that. Everyone knows what a Bud Light is: it is a beer-like drink that is watery but let’s you drink a six pack in an evening without any great disaster the next day. Sorry snobs, but the people like this feature.
...If you are in the know, you are starting to get the sense of a whole world in which the tastes and habits of regular people have become the prevailing cultural sense. No more ... top-down cultural impositions.

Now, I’m not advocating that it is perfectly okay to go home and down a six pack of Bud Light.  Please don’t take that away from this sermon–unless maybe you are a Bud Light representative and would like to thank me for advertising your beer and would like to pay me for it.  No. Just joking.  JUST JOKING!!!  What I am trying to call your attention to is the idea the last thought expressed by the author of this article.  No more top-down cultural impositions.  No more imposing one’s will by power or force.  No more living a life of fear of punishment for failing to obey the ruler of the land.

You see, the fact of the matter of Christmas is that God could have chosen to come to earth with all sorts of power and might.  God could have chosen to come to earth being born to a king enthroned in power and wealth and majesty.  Jesus could have been born and raised in such an environment.  He could have become powerful beyond any king ever known.  He could have wielded the power of God from His thone, and, of course, He could have been very, very good.  He could have fed His people and ensured that no one ever be touched by hunger.  He could have healed His people from all disease and sickness.  He could have brought peace and prosperity to His entire realm with His godly wisdom.  But He also would have had to institute swift and immediate justice.  He would have had to use His power to impose strict punishment upon those who failed to obey His commands.  He would have had to harshly deal with those who stole or murdered.  He would have had to swiftly uphold His statutes and laws lest someone try to take advantage of Him.  He would have had to protect His people and unleash His power upon their enemies, striking them dead or rendering them helpless with a simple word.  While everyone would love this king’s power for good, they would have feared His power and punishment against those who wronged Him.  They would greatly love, but also greatly fear His reprisal for their failure.  This is what happens when you have a top down imposition of culture.  And while God does want us to obey His commands, He does not want us to do so in fear.

And so, instead of coming to earth as the baby of a king, God came to earth as the baby of an ordinary young woman engaged to an ordinary man.  God did not arrive in a castle but instead in a stable.  He did not arrive cuddled in warm blankets by a roaring fireplace, but He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger surrounded by warm hay.  His birth announcement was not given by state employees to the nobility, but was given by angels on a hill side to common shepherds.  God’s arrival on earth was not meant to impose fear, but to cause wonder–a wonder that would begin opening our hearts so that eventually we may see God’s great love for us.

And that love would be most visible, not in Jesus’ healing or teaching or providing food.  That love would be most visible on the cross when He died for our sins.  For this is truly how our fear of God is taken away.  When you break the law, you deserve punishment; you deserve justice.  And each and every one of us has broken God’s law–we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  We have pursued other idols; other desires and not kept God in His proper place.  We have tried to justify ourselves and our actions saying that circumstances made us act a certain way or that other people caused us to fall into temptation.  God’s anger burns hot against us because of these things.  But Jesus, on our behalf says to the Father, “I will pay for what they have done.  I will bear the cost of their sins.”

It’s not such a strange thought.  I mean, what parent whose child accidentally breaks something in the store will have the store manager call the police to arrest the child for his or her carelessness?  No parent that I know of.  Most of us pay for the item that our child broke even though we were innocent.  We paid our child’s debt because we love our child.  The question becomes, does that child live in thankfulness for what the parent has done, or does the child continue with his or her reckless behavior?

You see, for us who believe in Jesus Christ, we look up at the cross, and we see what Jesus is doing for us.  We see how He is dying for our sin; for the sin of the world.  We understand that we are the ones who should be hanging there, and our hearts melt.  Our hearts break with sadness for our sin, but then they are filled with wonder and admiration for the One who would give Himself for us.  And we seek to put an end to our reckless behavior.  We seek to put an end to our chasing after our idols.  We seek to love and honor our King Jesus because instead of sitting in a throne in a castle, He has become enthroned in our hearts.  We seek to follow His will and His law not because of fear of a top down punishment, but because we love Him so much for what He did that we do not want to dishonor Him and His sacrifice. 

This love–this grace, is for the whole world.  It’s for kings and shepherds.  It’s for rich and poor.  It’s for parents and children.  It’s for Republicans and Democrats.  It’s for craft beer drinkers and Bud Light drinkers.  It’s for you and for me.  This love begins being poured out on this night as we welcome baby Jesus in the town of Bethlehem.  Let us rejoice that our Savior has come.  I am awful tempted to end this sermon with “Dilly dilly!”, but instead I’ll say, “Merry Christmas and Amen.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Gospel Strengthens You

Whenever I begin teaching my confirmation students the Bible, I always start with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.  That verse reads, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth...”  I ask them, “Who is the subject of this sentence?”  Immediately, someone will yell out, “God!” 

And I say, “That’s right.  God is the subject of the first sentence of the Bible.  The first sentence of the Bible tells us who the entire book is about.  The Bible is about God.  Now, are we the subject of the Bible?”

The kids usually have to think about this for a moment or two, but the general consensus then becomes, “No.”

And I say, “That’s right.  We are not the subject of the Bible.  Now, we can certainly find ourselves in the story of the Bible.  We can certainly relate to things in the Bible. There are certain things in the Bible that apply to us, but at the end of all of this, the Bible is not about us.  The Bible is about God.”

As Paul finishes out his letter to the Romans, he wants to bring everyone back to this basic fact.  When all is said and done; when all the chips are laid on the table; when all the facts are made known, ultimately anything and everything about the Christian life comes back to God.  Anything and everything about the Christian proclamation is about God and his wonderful, marvelous, overwhelming, action in and through Jesus Christ. 

Paul finishes with a sentence that would have made his grammar teacher turn over in her grave.  Paul runs things on and on and on as he seeks to bring folks to a place where they will give honor and glory to God.  Listen to the words once again: “25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.”

Paul indicates that God is working to strengthen us according to the Gospel and the proclamation of Jesus.  There are those who would like to say that Christianity is simply about enduring this life for a little while so that we can experience the true life of the world to come.  They accuse Christians of ignoring the here and now and simply focusing on heaven, but this is not what Paul is indicating here.  Paul is not talking about heavenly strength.  He is talking about a strength that takes place here and now; a strength that can embolden us in this world; a strength that empowers us to truly live a life of freedom and joy.  How is such a thing possible?  I mean, when you look at much of the world today–including the Christian world, do we see such freedom?  Do we see such joy?  Do we see such strength?  Maybe.  But mostly not.  Perhaps we need constant reminder of how the gospel of Jesus Christ strengthens us.

First, it says that we are sinners.  This is the fundamental, basic starting point of the Gospel.  We are all broken.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We are all in need of a savior.  This doesn’t quite seem like it is a position of strength.  How can admitting that we are sinful be a position of strength?  It seems like we are admitting weakness.  It seems like we are admitting that we are flawed.  It seems like we are admitting that we are in need. 

And, indeed we are.  But this is actually a point of strength.  How?  I remember watching “Spiderman” long ago, and the main villain in the movie has a potent line.  The villain says, “The one thing people love more than a hero is to watch that hero fall, fail, die trying.”  There is some truth to that statement.  We admire someone who rises to the top, but we also become enamored in the drama of watching others trying to displace the person at the top.  Why do you think we become so enamored with what goes on in politics?  Why do you think we get so wrapped up in our candidates?  Who will become strongest?  Who will last?  And who will find your opponent’s fatal flaw?  Who will find the unforgivable sin?  What story of brokenness will be used to topple the king of the hill? 

But what if you are unafraid of your brokenness?  What if you are unafraid of your flaws?  What if you admit, honestly admit that you are a broken, flawed, sinful individual?  What if someone comes up to you and says, “Aha!  I heard you cuss the other day, and you shouldn’t do that!  I’m going to tell everyone about what you did!”  And you respond, “Yes, you are right.  I have failed.  I am flawed.  I acknowledge this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Go ahead, tell everyone that I miss the mark.”  What does anyone have over you then?  What can anyone use against you?  You’ve already admitted your weakness.  You’ve already admitted your sin.  No one can use it against you!  When we admit that we are flawed, broken, sinful beings, we are free from the tyranny of having to be perfect people living perfect lives.  We are freed from spending time, energy, and money trying to hide our imperfections.  We are freed from hypocrisy for we readily admit that we do not do that which we ought to do.  There is great freedom in admitting that one is flawed and imperfect.

Yet, one must be careful–so very careful.  Because if you spend all of your time thinking that you are imperfect and flawed, you can become very, very depressed.  You can become so wrapped up in your weakness that you grovel and wallow in sorrow.  You can become so caught up in the doom and gloom that you think of yourself as a victim of karma, cosmic justice, or pure, bad luck.  You are like Charlie Brown having just hung that ornament on that scrawny little tree and watching that tree bend over unable to bear the weight of that glass ball.  You look up and say, “I broke it.  I’ve ruined Christmas.” 

Ah, but the gospel offers a strong corrective here.  It reminds you that in spite of your brokenness; in spite of your flaws; in spite of your failures; in spite of the fact that you have fallen short of the glory of God, you are deeply, wonderfully, marvelously loved.  For the God of the universe came down to earth to die for you.  The God of the universe took on human flesh and gave Himself in your place so that you would not receive punishment for your sin.  The God of the universe braved the fires of hell; braved the wrath of God on your behalf–certainly not because you were perfect and good, but because He is good.  When you remember this amazing grace, you ascend from the depths of depression, sorrow, and victim-hood to claim your status as a beloved child of God–a daughter or son of the Most High.  To know this status indeed brings strength!

Oh, and when you know that your worth and value comes from God and God alone, you find freedom.  You find glorious freedom.  I know that a lot of you Astros fans are still riding high from their first World Series win.  It’s an awesome feeling when the team that you support wins the championship.  But do you remember what it was like only a few short years ago?  Do you remember what it was like when the Astros were in last place?  What if you got your self-worth and value from how the Astros did?  What if your every emotion hinged upon whether or not they won or lost?  Sure, it feels good now, but what about when the cycle reverses?  You see, when your value and self worth is tied to anything, you stand a very good chance of finding yourself high one minute and down low the next minute.  If your value is tied to your stock portfolio, right now, you are feeling very good about yourself, but in 2009, you probably weren’t feeling very great.  And if you really, really think about it, you are enslaved to where you get your value.  You are completely dependent upon it for your satisfaction and worth.  But when you get your value from God–you are freed from such things.  Nothing in this world has control over you anymore.  Talk about amazing strength!!

And so, your ego finds itself going neither too high–because you know that you are flawed–nor too low–because you are deeply loved.  The good news of Jesus Christ makes you humble and strong all at the same time, and it brings you incredible freedom.

But we are not done yet!  For there is more to the story that must be told. There is even more strength that comes!  For we also know that we have a sure and certain hope!  We know that God has an ultimate destination for our lives!  This is very important to realize because, as C3PO said in Star Wars, “It seems to be our lot in life to suffer.”  Indeed, it is.  It is our lot in life to suffer.  Everyone sooner or later suffers.  We suffer the pain of broken relationships.  We suffer the pain of betrayal.  We suffer the pain of illness.  We suffer the pain of job loss.  We suffer the pain of broken expectations.  We suffer the pain of injury.  We suffer the pain of our bodies breaking down.  We suffer the pain of death.  Life is full of suffering.   Life is full of injustice.  Life is full of things that sometimes do not make any sense to us.

But God strengthens us through the power of the resurrection!  God strengthens us by showing that His kingdom is breaking into the world.  Jesus is the first fruits of that kingdom raised from death to life.  For the resurrection shows that God will unmake all the evil that has ever befallen us.  God will reverse all injustice, pain, suffering, and even death.  When God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness, we will have a new heaven and a new earth and a new body.  We will be in the presence of God, and He will wipe every tear from every eye.  Suffering no longer leads us to despair.  We may question it.  We may raise our fist in anger against it.  We will work to alleviate it, but it no longer devastates us for we now know God’s ultimate plan for our lives.  We know that God’s plan is to make all things new.  We have a sure and certain hope, and that hope gives us strength!

Put all of those things together.  Know that this mystery remained hidden for a long, long time, but now it has been revealed.  Now it has been made known to all the world.  It has now been passed down to us through the writings of scripture, and it comes to us–to our very hearts.  This is what God has done.  This is what God does for us through Jesus Christ.  It is nothing less than amazing.  It is nothing less than wonderful.  It is nothing less than fantastic!  This is the God we come together to serve and worship and give glory and honor to.  This is the one God who saves by grace.  This is the one God who reveals true wisdom–a wisdom that is so contrary to the way the world works!  This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Have you been grasped by this Gospel?  Has this good news sunk deep down into your soul?  If it has, you know that there is only one thing to do.  Give glory to God!  Raise your voice in song to God!  Tell everyone what God has done!!  So ends the book of Romans–with a call for all of us to give such glory, praise and worship to our God.  May His work in Jesus Christ grasp us through and through.  Amen.